After my first visit to the library inside Manav Sadhna’s center in the Tekra, I noticed that there was only one book in English on the shelf. I immediately resolved to donate some of my own books to probably the only public library for kids in the entire slum. For many months, I had been carrying a heavy, pretty, but rather useless travel guide for India across three continents and two oceans that had done nothing more than weighed me down and cost me excess baggage fees on domestic flights. Time to unload in the best way possible.
All the people who gave that travel book 5 stars on Amazon had to be pure art lovers. The book is absolutely beautiful, well-organized, even color-coded by state– but bereft of any depth. The dining, accomodation, travel, and shopping sections betray remarkable cluelessness about how much things should cost in India. Its clearly for the tourist who wants quick-paced, high-priced, five-star taste of Indicah where they get everything but the Indians and their ugly problems.
Anyways, I thought that it would make a fantastic gift for the kids. Most have never been more than a few miles outside the slum, much less to another city. A lifetime in the Tekra tends to constrain the imagination and the possibilities of what their own country might be like. Perhaps those brilliant photographs might awaken a sense of pride for the nation, even if it has shamed itself in how it treats them. Maybe it would hint at the glory of an ancient civilization whose faded luster could be repolished in their own hands and dreams. I fantasized about some kid from this place rising to lead the nation like a Chandragupta Maurya, or making some brilliant contribution like Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Minimally, it would be entertaining and somewhat educational. Other books I donated were my travel book for England. If anyone did develop better reading skills in English, it would be interesting to read about the country of our former colonial oppressors. Also donated was the travel guide to Nepal, India’s troubled neighbor whom I no longer will be visiting. Thank you Maoist rebels. Finally, the inspirational piece: Kiran: The Power of One thanks to Ragu who let me leave the country with his copy. Its a compilation of short stories about how single individuals in every station of life across India have channeled pain from their own suffering into greater love and service for others. Manav Sadhna is full of people who grew up in the Tekra and now serve in the Tekra, but Kiran puts so many other issues, places, and people on the map that it just broadens the spectrum of real role models and heroes.
The books were received with instant excitement. I had to goad the young librarian to enter the books in the log because they were instantly and competitively “checked-out” by the small crowd of boys who mobbed me. Talking with the kids more and showing them how to use the favorite book, the India travel guide, made me realize that color coding and pictures go only so far. I needed to get them basic books on how to learn English.
One of the things that has consistently struck me about the Tekra is the incredible amount of untapped human potential in that place. Despite poor formal schooling, many kids are incredibly smart, creative, enthusiastic, and eager for anything and everything. I left the Tekra fantasizing about how many brilliant artists, singers, poets, engineers, doctors, or misc. professionals could arise from here if given the chance. Yet in the Tekra, its several orders of magnitude beyond “the odds being against you” like what inner-city kids in the west have to face. Their survival is challenged from their first breath, where they might inhale the tuberculosis spores coughed up by their ill father, or drink typhoid infested water, or get dysentery, or malaria. Just being alive is incredible. The direness of their circumstance only infused more life into my fantasy about the scores of sleeping genius waiting to be awakened. These would be a different breed of genius though, where the brilliance of their minds is balanced by the softness of their hearts and the light of their spirits. Where their energy and creativity get poured into solving the seemingly insoluble problems of the materially disadvantaged across India and the world. My mind wandered to Nikola Tesla, an inspired genius who selflessly dreamed of lifting humanity through his brilliant contributions… and how I had to bring the spirit of his story to the Tekra to be a rough guide for the geniuses here.
Of course, fantasy included the self-gratifying notion that I was playing a role in awakening latent genius, and that a simple book I dropped off would be the spark that lights the world.
I told the universe that I want to live to meet a genius from the Tekra who is inspired by a book I have left behind. Me, me, me. Its all about me.
When I returned to the Tekra four days later with two sets of a five-series English learner for kids, plus two fat English-English-Gujarati dictionaries, plus Tesla, I found five kids, including two teachers huddled around the India book still enthralled by all the things they never knew were in India. After their enthusiatic welcome, I asked them to show me their favorite site in Gujarat. Only the teachers knew how to find the Gujarat section. No worries, I pulled out the simple English learners I brought for them and along with the dictionaries. This drew a bigger crowd of kids eager to check out the latest for their growing library. It also drew an older kid… in his early 20s…
“Who are you?” he asks with high-nosed waryness.
“I’m Rahulbhai. How are you?”
“What did you bring?”
No nonsense. I guess he’s fine…
“Just some books for the kids.”
“Why did you come?”
“Last week I brought some other books in English, but only a few can read them. So now I brought books that can teach English.”
“No, but why did you come to India?”
Wow. Quite bold and testy.
“To serve?!? To serve who?”
Suddenly felt like the universe schooling me in humility.
“Well, I was serving with some NGOs in the South…”
I’m a slow student of humility.
“What were you doing?”
“In Chennai I started making a film, in Madurai I was helping out at an eye hospital—”
“What can you do at an eye hospital? Are you a doctor?”
“No. I did office work. Really, I got more out of it than I gave. It helped me…”
Finally, I muster a bit of humility and honesty.
“How did it help you?”
“What’s the difference between me and you?”
I decided to turn the tables on him and ask some questions for a change.
“You tell me.”
“I was born in India, like everyone here. I speak Gujarati… my skin is the same color… the same blood flows through my veins. Why do I have everything, while so many people here don’t have enough?”
Silence. I continue…
“If things were only slightly different, I could have grown up here, next to you. So much has come to me without my own effort that I can’t rightly claim it as mine. What I have belongs to God.”
No disagreements from him. I keep it going…
“If I work a little, I get so much. I see people here working so hard, and still they get almost nothing. So I tell myself that God must have given me so many advantages so that I can do something for us all.”
He’s softened a bit by this point, so I go on…
“So many people here in India are doing so much to serve so many. Including many people here at Manav Sadhna. By spending time with them, I’m learning about how to serve my larger family. I’m learning that there really isn’t any difference between you and me. After all, we’re brothers, aren’t we?”
We’re both silent for a few moments.
“So where did you come from?”
His skeptical tone has given way to genuine curiosity.
“I live in America.”
“America! You left America to come here?”
“Don’t act so shocked. America has many good things, but it also lacks many good things that I have found in India.”
We both laugh at his joke. He decides to refocus back to practicals…
“What were you doing in America?”
“I was working for the electric company.”
We talk a little more about what I was doing, and then he tells me that he’s studying Electrical Engineering. I get really excited and pull out my book on Tesla, noticing that he bears a resemblance to the under-appreciated genius.
“You should read this. This guy was a genius electrical engineer before there were any electrical engineers.”
He looks over the cover.
“I was just looking for a book on Tesla last Thursday. I couldn’t find one.”
Now I get really excited. It was Thursday that I spoke to the universe about a book awakening a genius here. Without thinking about that too much I blurt out..
“Then this book was meant for you! See how powerful you are? You just decided that you want something and God sends someone from America to drop it in your hands.”
I’m jokingly serious, but we both laugh.
Curious about what kind of weirdo wants to read about Tesla, I start asking him about his life. At age 12, he somehow found a doctor who would let him hang around and observe patient interactions. Within a year, just by watching and listening, he learned what drugs to prescribe for dozens of conditons and symptoms. The doctor noticed that he was a bright kid and decided to teach him properly. The doctor would test the kid by making him give the diagnosis and prescription for drugs when he saw a patient. The kid got it right most of the time, and when he didn’t, he’d never make the same mistake twice. Duly impressed, the doc decided to teach the kid basic procedures like injections, drawing blood, and suturing. He first started on oranges and goat parts and then after a year and a half, the doc let him do basic first aid on patients. As the doc’s confidence grew, he let him do injections, sutures, and all the rest on real patients. By the time the kid was 16, the doctor put him on payroll. His salary: Rs 500 a month (or about $11). With this meager amount, the 16 year old was still the major breadwinner in the family. The doc convinced him that he should continue studying, and even spoke to his teachers. His teachers knew he was bright, and encouraged him further to go to college. When he was finally old enough, he landed a windfall: as a member of a “scheduled caste”, he could attend college for only token fees and minimal expense. College meant that he couldn’t work at the docs, so the doc helped him land a job at a hospital. He works the night shift– 8pm to 8am doing the kind of stuff he did for the doc. Daytime is for college. He takes fewer classes than usual because he has a full-time job, paying Rs. 2000 a month (probably much less than normal for this type of job because of his lack of a formal qualification). He’s now majorly the biggest breadwinner in the family. Between school, studying, and work, he gets 2-3 hours of sleep a night. Every night. One day a week off. On that day, he often comes to Manav Sadhna’s community center to play with the kids or help Kamlesh, the “principal” of the school. I ask why he’s not studying medicine, expecting him to say that he already knows it all, but instead he says medical education takes too long and he needs to start earning real money right after graduating. Besides, he can’t stomach the thought of the gore of cutting up frogs. He seems to be at a loss to explain how he can give people stitches and draw blood while not being able to cut up frogs, until he says that he helps people with sutures, but would have to kill the frog. Besides, eletricity fascinates him. He tells me about how he’s got a reputation for being able to fix anything electrical. I ask him a question to test his knowledge about polyphase motors, and gives me “the right” answer plus three more solutions that I didn’t even know existed. I ask him if he’s interested in doing anything for the Tekra, and learn that he’s already helped on lots of projects, including one run by Manav Sadhna, but that he hasn’t thought about it as a career choice. Money is a priority. Escape from poverty is imperative. He’s not quite sure what to do after graduating in a year, but he’d like to join the army.
“Wait, what if you had to kill someone? You can’t even kill a frog.”
“Yeah, but I get a uniform. And I like the discipline and exercise. And killing an enemy is different that killing an innocent frog.”
He’s got a point, but there’s still something contradictory about his logic. It was getting dark, and in the dim light, he looked even more like Tesla. I left him without probing deeper into his paradoxical quirks, instead allowing it all to just give me a shamelessly toothy smile. The universe had responded, like always, and I was lucky enough to be conscious enough to know it. The universe gave me my genius.
His name is Parmar Moti.